Erik Howard brings the corner and the community together in unlikely ways through The Alley Project

To read the abundance of news coverage coming out of Detroit over the last few years heralding the downtrodden city as a hotbed of creativity and innovation, attracting young creatives and start-up entrepreneurs from all over the country – the Detroit-is-what-you-make-of-it, “blank slate” narrative – one might be tempted to think that there was no such social activism or creative energy there prior to, say, 2009.

But while there have been innumerable socially-minded projects and organizations taking root in recent years, there are just as many that started planting their seeds years, decades even, before there was any promise that they might come to fruition.

Young Nation is one such organization, and it has grown organically since photographer and youth advocate Erik Howard and his collaborators started discussing an idea for a neighborhood-based group in 1999.

“Things don’t happen out of nowhere, and they don’t happen when it’s popular. Most of the work happens before it’s popular,” Howard says. “[A lot of the] big ideas happened at a time when there was nothing. There were no foundations. You had to pioneer. You had to blaze some trails. Why did we want to do that? Because we didn’t have anyone that could [do it] it for us and we wanted to do that for them, [the next generation]. A lot of the great stuff is born out of social capital.”

The group was born out of the corner culture that existed on Carson and Pitt in Southwest Detroit, where Howard grew up.

“In the ’80s Carson was a mix of incomes and ethnicities,” Howard explains. “I grew up with people who looked like me, [white, people who were] Arab, black, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Honduran; there was just a little of everything going on on Carson. One of the things that was always going on was the corner. Carson and Pitt had a pretty intense corner culture…it had a pretty storied history of street economy. Anything you can [imagine] about ’80s street corners was happening.”

When Howard refers to “the corner,” he’s referring to street economy: gangs, guns, drugs, all of the ugliness that is a reality that simply cannot be glossed over. In his neighborhood, there were “corner kids” and there were “porch kids.” The “porch kids,” including Howard, had strong family units, support systems that kept them off “the corner.” The corner kids weren’t so lucky, and putting time in on the corner was just a part of life, an expectation Howard compares to joining the military.

“[Some] people in the United States will say that joining the military and serving your country is part of growing up, part of coming of age. It’s just what you do,” he explains. “On streets like Carson, among the youth the corner was kind of looked at as the military: you’re supposed to do some things and spend some time on the corner, and even if you have to do some things that are ugly that’s just part of it; it’s what you do.”

For the corner kids, it was a way of creating a substitute family in place of the family life they didn’t have at home. “Young people will find family units [no matter what]; whether they’re healthy or [if it’s] by exploiting themselves and other people is the variable,” Howard says. “While leading young people as parents, teachers, and older people on the block, it becomes really valuable to think, how are they getting what they need? Are they building up themselves and the community or are they exploiting it?”

Howard and his Young Nation co-founders, Augie and Ron, wanted to create a neighborhood organization that would help young people build up rather than exploit. “We wanted to create something for people to do between the porch and the corner that tapped into the assets of both and addressed the liabilities of both.”

They looked at the needs and assets of the different kinds of institutions that serve youth – urban church youth groups, schools and nonprofits, and, yes, street gangs. “All of these institutions have been successful in some way in selling themselves to young people. All three have had success stories of appealing to, attracting, and retaining young people, but they all also have tremendous liabilities. What we tried to do is take the best practices of all three and not the liabilities.”

The group officially formed as Expressions in 2002, a mentoring group built around a low-rider car club because that was something young people were interested in. “It was something that exists in communities and neighborhoods where families are strong but also where street economy is strong,” says Howard. “We thought it would be the perfect storm to bridge the gap.”

Expressions started with youth on Carson Street, but ended up attracting youth from all different parts of the neighborhood. As the number of youth grew, they found that the kids who were interested in low-riders also had other shared interests and talents – specifically informal (social) media and street art – so they started looking at those.

As Expressions grew, the organizers decided they wanted to keep it flexible and informal, free of the bureaucratic process, but they wanted to create a formal organization that would support groups like Expressions. And so Young Nation was born.

“What was great about Expressions was that the porch and corner came together to meet the needs of young people with assets that already existed,” says Howard. With Young Nation, “we wanted to invest very heavily in the idea of social capital. The corner actually helped us get Expressions started.”

Of the three founders, Howard was the one who had, at that point, just graduated from college and was thinking of things from a positive youth development approach. Augie was particularly interested in low-riders and street art. And Ron was one of the older guys from the corner, a guy they weren’t allowed to talk to growing up. But there was still a natural synergy between the porch and the corner, and that synergy enabled Expressions to happen.

“We all used the same sidewalks, even though half of us grew up on the corner and half on the porch,” Howard says. “The was a lot of pride on the block. Some of us became teachers and social workers; some became gang members and drug dealers. Some went to college, to the military, or to prison. Some got killed. Some killed other people. But what happened as we grew up, we still had that pride and stayed in touch. Now I get to mentor the kids of the guys who grew up on the corner, and now those kids are starting to have kids. We try to make sure our mission is driven by passion and social capital, [which] we believe [will keep it] sustainable.”

Expressions became the Detroit chapter of the Los Angeles-based USO Car Club, a respected low-rider club that treats its members from all over the world as part of a global extended family. Their work with media evolved into the local website Inside Southwest Detroit, created to support community-driven narratives that champion the idea of being producers of media instead of consumers of media, shifting the power balance and producing their own stories instead of relying on outsiders to tell the stories of their neighborhood. And finally, their work with street art became The Alley Project (TAP).

“We realized our young people had an extremely high-risk door they were entering street art through,” Howard says. “They were putting themselves through unreasonable, ludicrous legal and physical risks, so we wanted to reduce that risk that they were coming [into it] through.”

If anyone questions the personal risk involved in learning and practicing street art, Howard outlines a scenario: most people remember how they first got into basketball – the net being so high, the difficulty in making shots, and how after continued practice they got better and better. Now, Howard says, imagine that there were no lights, you could only practice after midnight, and you had to run from everyone you saw because there were people who wanted to hurt you and/or arrest you. Would you still have been able to learn how to play basketball?

Art and design are no different.

“TAP is about reducing risk,” says Howard. “Early on, probably up until 2010, people said, ‘You can’t build a mentoring group out of a graffiti group and street art.’ Yes, you can. Nothing is all good or all bad.”

In an alley behind Avis Street, there were garages full of gang tags. Howard figured well, the gang members probably didn’t have permission to put those tags there and they probably didn’t get in trouble for it, and the kids need somewhere to paint. So he had them start painting the garages. The first three garages were Howard’s, his aunt’s, and his neighbor’s. The fourth belonged to an elderly neighbor named Wally.

Howard remembers the day Wally came outside and grunted, “You know, they’re getting better. In the beginning I thought, what is that scribble-scrabble? Now I can read it. It’s nice. I wish I could afford something like that.” And so he became the fourth garage.

“That fourth garage met and overcame a major obstacle of intergenerational barriers,” says Howard. That relationship they built with Wally became a watershed moment for the fledgling group.

TAP started out as a small space for just a few kids. As the project grew, they needed more space, so they brought together a group of neighborhood stakeholders – neighbors, neighborhood youth, area for- and nonprofit organizations, and local artists. Now 35-50 kids use the space each month, there is a garage that has been converted to a studio and gallery space, a new garage has been activated for a church youth group, and several more neighbors are interested in activating their spaces.

There are also massive boards, each six to twelve feet tall, set up where people can come paint freely, and the alley itself has become a gallery full of murals, each created as the result of a workshop between youth, an artist leader, and the occupier of the space. Each mural is a monument to the unlikely relationships they have formed, like the one with Wally, that have resulted from TAP’s initiatives. “Every mural involves at least four people. If it weren’t for this initiative, these people would never have occupied the same space.”

For Howard, these unlikely and unexpected relationships are the real measure of success. “It goes back to social capital and why creative processes lend themselves so well to community building. It’s about the frequency and depth of unlikely relationships.”

Wally passed away over the winter, and TAP is about to paint a mural in his honor. “We’re about to put a big Wally head on Wally’s old garage!” laughs Howard. “Through Wally we were able to build relationships with our other elderly neighbors.”

Howard remembers another time when an 85-year-old neighbor named Jim had three twenty-something graffiti artists in his backyard drinking wine and shouted at Howard from over the fence to come join them. He laughs as he says, “Jim gardens. He goes to dive bars. He has an old boys’ club. I don’t even know where the wine came from, none of them even drink wine!” What impressed him the most was that it happened entirely without him. “[That was the goal.] We wanted to create these automatic processes. That was all them responding to the changes of the physical environment that can support those interactions.”

At the core of all these stories of new and unlikely relationships is that, Howard says, “People who otherwise wouldn’t talk to each other and were afraid of each are now communicating on a regular basis, sharing their lives with each other, and creating together. And that’s our mission.”

To see more of The Alley Project, check out this video from the Detroit Creative Corridor Center: